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How to Recover from a Google Unnatural Linking Penalty (a.k.a. Manual Action)

08-23-13 by Matt Dimock

Unnatural linking is a no-no. Google has made this very clear for quite some time. And yet, even until this day, there are many professional search engine optimizers (SEOs) who simply refuse to believe it. Although many SEOs acknowledge the perils of unnatural linking, they nevertheless continue their black hat methods (I like to refer to them as “the special few”). And do you know why they still condone and practice unnatural linking? That is because to an extent, it still works well for increasing keyword rankings. In this blog post, I talk about why unnatural linking can be more harmful than helpful, give you some information about the various types of unnatural linking I have found to be most common in websites that I have helped recover. I also explain how to recover from an unnatural linking penalty (a.k.a a manual action).

Not All Backlinks Are Created Equal

Although inbound links still play an influential role in Google’s ranking algorithm, I would definitely consider backlink building to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, building backlinks can be a great way of increasing keyword rankings for the keywords targeted within the anchor text of those links. But on the other hand, obtaining those links unnaturally poisons your site. In the more severe cases I have seen, Google has taken manual action on entire websites instead of just specific pages, removing all pages of the affected site from their index completely. Needless to say, not all backlinks were created equal.

Not all links were created equal

For those unfamiliar with the term, manual action; this is the terminology Google uses in-house when referring to their unnatural linking penalties. The Google unnatural linking penalty is a result of a manual action, which means that someone from the Search Quality team personally reviewed the website in question and found it to be in violation of their quality guidelines. However, even with this being a manual process, Google has still been able to target tens of thousands of webmasters (this was confirmed by Matt Cutts on the official Google Webmaster Central blog when they first notified the public about the new unnatural link notifications, and also provided vague examples of unnatural links). I think Google has been able to do this on a scalable level with the help of one of their more formidable algorithms to date, Penguin.

The Penguin Algorithm May Help Google Dish Out Unnatural Linking Penalties

Penguin is an algorithm, which means that it completes its work according to set formulas and adjusts your websites rankings accordingly. From what we know, the Penguin algorithm was designed by the Search Quality team at Google and released for two very apparent reasons: to identify and nullify unnatural links.

The inception of the Penguin algorithm on April 24, 2012 has since forced SEOs to find alternative, more natural ways of link building to keep their clients’ websites ranking above their competition. But I think there is more to this algorithm than I first realized. I think that Google is using this algorithm to collect large amounts of data on unnatural backlinks, which they then use to identify and take manual action on sites which have practiced the most egregious of unnatural link building.

Who Needs to Worry About Google Linking Penalties?

There are still many SEO companies and SEO consultants who have ignored Google’s advice. Unfortunately, this means that the clients’ who put their faith into these companies are putting their websites, and consequently the livelihood of their online business, at risk. I have even seen unnatural linking penalties innocently triggered by website owners who were simply uneducated on Google’s strict quality guidelines. This is all the more reason why every SEO and webmaster alike should read the Google quality guidelines. Not doing so can result in a significant loss of rankings, which can lead to a reduction of both traffic and leads.

Read Google's quality guidelines to learn why you may have received an unnatural linking penalty

Here is Your Unnatural Linking Penalty Recovery Plan

This isn’t rehab, but admitting that you have a problem is definitely the first step on the road to unnatural linking recovery. Because Google now confirms whether or not a website actually has an unnatural linking penalty within Google Webmaster Tools, finding out whether or not your site has been penalized could not be easier. Assuming you have already set up and verified Google Webmaster Tools, and have confirmed that your website has an unnatural linking penalty, the next step is identifying the toxic links pointing to your website.

How to Identify Unnatural Links

The process for identifying unnatural links is a long and tedious one. There are many different reasons why Google may take manual action on your website. The following steps will outline some of the ways I have been able to find unnatural links which are capable of triggering manual actions:

  1. Verify ownership of your website within www.MajesticSEO.com. Once you do this, you can gain access to your websites link data (as seen by Majestic SEO) for free.
  2. Once you are logged into Majestic SEO, create a historical report of all links pointing to the root domain of your website (the root domain is your website’s domain name, without the http:// or www preceding it) and identify any links deemed as unnatural. Some things that would classify a link as unnatural:
    1. A poor quality or spammy website. Although a tedious process, manually reviewing each backlink pointing to your website is the best and most failsafe way for identifying unnatural, spammy or low quality backlinks.
    2. A completely irrelevant website. The websites pointing to the target site should relate to that site. And just because the anchor text used to link back to the website is relevant does not make the entire site relevant. If the content of the page linking to you does not relate, the link should be classified as unnatural.
    3. Large amounts of backlinks coming from one referring domain (also known as site wide links). The more backlinks you receive from a website, the less valuable they become. In my experience, large amounts of backlinks are a clear indicator of unnatural linking, as they usually stem from widget or footer links which replicate throughout a large portion or all of a websites pages.
    4. Large amounts of links using exact match anchor text (i.e. “Orlando Plumbing”, “Visit this website”, etc. …). I have found exact match anchor text as probably the most common culprit for manual actions being assigned to a website. When natural link building occurs, it is rare that you will see many instances of the same anchor text being used twice. So you can imagine why Penguin would raise a red flag on your website when it notices half of your backlinks are using one anchor text variation. This is why it’s important you learn how to do keyword research properly before even thinking about starting a link building campaign. And of course, make sure you stay clear of keyword cannibalization.
    5. Paid links (i.e. where a webmaster pays a 3rd party to place a followed link on their own site pointing back to the webmasters own site). Paid backlinks are also one of the more common reasons why webmasters are receiving unnatural linking penalties. It is a clear violation of Google’s quality guidelines to purchase links which flow PageRank. If you do pay for any directory submissions or to have a backlink point to your website, make sure the webmaster adds a rel=nofollow tag to that link. This will prevent the flow of PageRank, and will keep you manual action-free (assuming you aren’t partaking in any other forms of unnatural link building).
  3. In my experience, the more backlink data you have to evaluate, the better your chances of succeeding. Some other ways for you to find backlinks to analyze are:
    1. Download the provided sample links within the “Links to Your Site” section of Google Webmaster Tools. Matt Cutts states this is all you need to focus on in order to recover from an unnatural linking manual action, though some in the SEO industry are questioning Matt Cutts’ statement.
    2. Subscribe to www.Ahrefs.com or www.Linkresearchtools.com. Ahrefs.com is great for analyzing your backlink data down to a very granular level, similar to what is now possible at Majesticseo.com as well. And Linkresearchtools.com has a Link Detox report which algorithmically calculates the most likely unnatural backlinks within your backlink profile.

Steps to Recover from a Google Unnatural Linking Penalty

Once you have compiled a comprehensive list of unnatural links, you will need to start contacting the webmasters of these links, politely asking them to either nofollow or remove the backlinks from their site pointing to. Keep in mind that many webmasters might get offended when you contact them, implying their backlinks may be hurting your rankings, so word your e-mail as politely as possible. And in some instances, the amount of backlinks is so steep that it may be in your best interest to request that they remove all backlinks pointing from their site to your own vs. just a handful of backlinks you identified. Below is an outline of the exact steps you need to take in order to request removal of an unnatural linking manual action placed upon your website:

  1. Reach out to the webmasters of the sites you identified as having unnatural links. In fact, you need to contact them multiple times via either contact forms or e-mail addresses found on their site, asking that they remove all backlinks on their site pointing to the target site. Sites like www.Removeem.com and tools like www.BoomerangGmail.com can make this tedious task that much more manageable, as they automate a lot of the initial contact and follow up process.
  2. Document all link removal efforts within a Google Doc sheet. Statistics you should track are the target URL, the dates you attempted to contact the webmaster, and the status of the link at the end of all your efforts. If any of the webmasters request that you make payment for link removal, just disregard them and add that note to your document for the respective website. Remember to make this document available to all, so you can share it within your submitted reconsideration request to Google’s Search Quality team.
  3. Submit a disavow file. Once you have reached out at least three different times to the target webmasters, I would then recommend you create and submit a disavow file, asking Google to disregard all of the links you’ve deemed unnatural. Make sure you read Google’s instructions on how to create and submit a disavow file, so you know that you’re completing this process correctly.
  4. Submit a reconsideration request. After you have successfully submitted your disavow file, I would recommend waiting at least two weeks before submitting a reconsideration request to Google. This should give Google ample time to review the file and disavow the targeted links accordingly. However, please note that it is extremely rare for Google to revoke a manual action after the first submitted reconsideration request.The worst-case scenario could very well be that you may have to wait for the manual action to time out on your website, but that’s not to say Google’s Search Quality team won’t simply apply another of greater magnitude later down the road (which they have been known to do, as verified by Barry Schwartz). Some webmasters have even disavowed all backlinks pointing to their site, but this blanketed approach should not be considered lightly.

My hopes are that this blog post will help you with your unnatural linking road to recovery, but the hard truth is that you may not be able to do this yourself. Identifying unnatural links can be difficult enough, and making yourself available to reach out to webmasters can be a full-time gig on its own. You don’t have to walk this path alone, however. There are plenty of SEO companies out there who have extensive experience in manual action recovery. If you need further guidance or would like to speak with iMarket Solutions about helping you recover from an unnatural linking penalty, feel free to reach out to us. We’d be delighted to steer you in the right direction to a brighter, unnatural link-free future. And as always, if you found this article to be of use to you, please consider sharing it with your social circles.

Matt Dimock (12 Posts)

Matt Dimock is the SEO Manager at iMarket Solutions. Passionate about both search engine optimization and research and development, Matt strives to bring to the company innovative, and yet effective, strategies that help our clients dominate their competition both organically and locally. Matt leads our team of SEO Specialists with over 6 years of SEO and Internet marketing experience, and more than 8 years of management experience.


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